Remembering Lanford Wilson: Colleagues Reflect About the Playwright
By Robert Simonson
Lanford Wilson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of such works as Balm in Gilead, Fifth of July, Hot l Baltimore and Talley's Folly, died on March 24 at the age of 73. He touched the lives of many theatre artists over a five-decade career. Playbill.com talked to some of his closest colleagues.
MARSHALL W. MASON (A regular director of Wilson's plays, he co-founded Circle Repertory Theatre with Wilson): (This quote is excerpted from the Eulogy that Mason read at Wilson's memorial.) "Lanford was driven as an artist to write some of the most memorable plays of his generation. His work will be treasured for his extraordinary use of language, in a style that came to be called "lyric realism." He took ordinary speech and made it sound like poetry. His plays will be remembered for the complex, richly human characters he created. He was a true innovator: Lanford was the first writer ever to create scenes that were to be enacted simultaneously, like a three-ring circus. Lanford thought theatre should be as exciting as a circus, and he believed an audience was capable of understanding more than one scene at a time. He’ll always be highly regarded for his uncompromising passion: he believed in people and their possibilities…
"Lanford was called the poet of the disenfranchised. He wrote with passion and understanding about the outcasts of our society. And he never passed a beggar without giving whatever was asked for…
"It has been noted that Lanford was always looking for a family. Coming from a broken home, Lanford came to New York with Michael Warren Powell on a Greyhound Bus, and he found his first home at the Café Cino, the birthplace of Off-Off-Broadway. When his plays grew too large to be produced at the Cino, he found a family at La MaMa with Ellen Stewart. His longest-lasting, deepest family relationship came from his home at Circle Rep, where he wrote plays for us over the next 26 years. After the demise of Circle Rep, he found a family with Jeff Daniels' Purple Rose Theater in Michigan, modeled after Circle Rep, and he wrote his last two plays for that company. In New York, those last two plays were produced in a season devoted to his work by the family at the Signature Theatre. And he was famous for being a genuine 'Broadway baby.' Lanford attended nearly every performance of every play he had produced on Broadway. Nobody enjoyed a Lanford Wilson play more than Lanford Wilson…
"In his wonderful book 'Children of Midnight,' Salmon Rushdie wrote: 'We each owe death a life.' Lanford Wilson has paid that debt with a treasury of riches he has bequeathed to the world."
GARY SINISE (a founder of Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company, which produced many Wilson plays, he acted in the famed 1984 Off-Broadway revival of Balm in Gilead): "I have not seen Lanford for many years but have such fond memories of him. Terry [Kinney] was the guy who introduced me to Lanford's work with a production of Home Free he directed down at Illinois State when he was in college there. We did it again a few years later during one of our first seasons in the basement in Highland Park. The first time I saw [John] Malkovich he was auditioning for Terry for that play. He didn't get the part. Laurie [Metcalf] was incredible in both productions.
"Then there was the St. Nicholas production of Fifth of July in 1978. Steven Schachter hired all the actors from Steppenwolf, the first time we were paid. $100 per week. $88 after taxes. Then, of course, Balm in Gilead. The most time was spent when he was around for rehearsals on his adaptation of The Three Sisters. Burn This would come later.
"But I believe the first time I met him was during my first trip to New York back when I became artistic director in 1980, shortly after we finished our initial run of Balm in Gilead. Here I was, this little artistic director in a corduroy sport coat, a fish out of water in NYC, running around meeting agents and trying to figure out a way to bring the 30-person Balm in Gilead to New York. Met Albert Poland for the first time. Asked him to help get it produced and he looked at me like I was completely out of my mind. We had managed to talk Marshall Mason into coming to Chicago to see the production and so there was a little inroad with Circle Rep.
"Had a meeting down at their offices and there I met Lanford for the first time. The beginning of a relationship between our two theatres that would eventually lead to our collaboration on Balm in Gilead in 1984 at Circle Rep, with then a move to the brand new Minetta Lane Theater, the inaugural production there. Ran ten months in New York. Huge hit for us. That was an incredible time in the evolution of Steppenwolf and Lanford's work had a profound effect on all of us in those early days.
"Thank you. Lanford. You gave us all many great works which helped to shape our company. We are in your debt."
LAURIE METCALF (a member of Steppenwolf, she acted in Balm in Gilead): "It was Lanford's writing in Balm in Gilead that showed us how a funny, clueless, brash character named Darlene could affect an audience in such a tender way. Twenty-seven years later, I still meet people who were moved by the production. Interpreting his Darlene was an honor."
ROBYN GOODMAN (New York producer and co-founder of Second Stage): "We produced three plays by Lanford at Second Stage and the thing I remember most is his warm enthusiasm for the artists with which he worked. He proudly helped discover Mark Brokaw and Amy Ryan in The Rimers of Eldritch, swooned over Jeff Daniels in Lemon Sky and showed giddy excitement over Dianne Weist's profound vulnerability in Serenading Louie. He was a brilliant fan of those who illuminated his gorgeous words."
GUY SANVILLE (artistic director of the Purple Rose Theatre Company): "I was honored to direct the world premiere of Lanford's last two full-length plays. He was ruthless with his own work. He was interested and fascinated with what his work inspired in others. When we were early into rehearsals for Book of Days, we were working on the baptism scene. The character of Earl, who idealizes the villain of the play, James Bates, and later commits murder for him, is about to be baptized by him. I looked over at Lanford and saw tears running down his face. I asked him what was wrong. He said, 'People who believe too much smear me.' I will miss most of all the days in Sag Harbor, the all-night conversations, the walks in his beloved garden and even those four-hour long trips to the local plant nurseries. He was my oracle. I could and often did call on him any time of the day or night for advice and truth. The Purple Rose Theatre Company would not have come to be without him and Marshall and the Circle Rep and their devotion to Jeff. I will always be in his debt."
JUDD HIRSCH (actor in the original production of Hot l Baltimore and Talley's Folly): "All actors love to speak Lanford Wilson: to be real and poetic — that is devoutly to be wished. His observations on the American Midwestern and historic ways these characters have in common are both unique and recognizable. He and Tennessee Williams pretty much cornered the market on writing plays about this country of downtrodden, disappointed, yet determined, love-starved people. He made them all worthwhile...and that's why I shall remember Lanford Wilson all the days left of my life."
JEFF DANIELS (an actor in New York City productions of Fifth of July, Redwood Curtain and Lemon Sky and, at his Purple Rose Theatre Company, a producer of Wilson's work): (This quote is taken from a statement on Purple Rose's website.) "Lanford Wilson loved his words. He wrote in a way that showed us who we are, why we are, and where we're headed whether we like it or not. He let no one off the hook; not his actors, not his audience, not his critics, not the American Theatre, not the country nor himself. Especially, himself. He demanded excellence, hated hypocrisy, despised mediocrity, and loved life.
"Along with Marshall W. Mason and the rest of New York's Circle Repertory Company, Lanford was an artistic mentor and a life-long source of inspiration. A devout playwright, Lanford was incapable of selling out. No matter how broke he was, he refused to write anything other than his plays his way. I'd tell him, 'Get your agent to get you a gig doctoring a film script.' He looked at me and all but spit, 'Movies are bupkus!' And yet, when I did a film he liked — and thankfully, there were a few —he went out of his way to tell me. He adored work that mattered, that meant something, that counted. In his world, that was not too much to ask.
"His wit was legendary. In the late '70s, Danton Stone, John Hogan and I wrote a play about a down and out talent agent and a young lounge singer interested in making the career transition from Queens to Manhattan. Beyond desperate, they hit the road and toured the country, hoping to become successful enough to be asked to dine with Wayne Newton. The title of our maiden epic was 42 Cities in 40 Nights. Through dogged persistence and a unearned belief in ourselves, Circle Rep finally allowed us a reading in front of the rest of the company. Blinded by our brilliance, our dirge of a comedy lasted three hours. After the reading, everyone scattered for a much needed break. Dreaming of Broadway, I found my way to the rest room. Standing at the urinals was Lanford. I slid in beside him. 'What'd you think?' I said. Without looking at me, he said, 'I'll give you a hundred bucks for the jokes.' Then he hit the flusher and walked out…
"I met him in 1976 in the Greenwich Village offices of Circle Rep. Disheveled, he looked as if he had fallen into the chair, his arms and legs splayed out in four directions. There was a quick introduction. 'Jeff, you know Lanford, don't you?' I responded by staring. I'd never seen a living, breathing playwright before. 'Hey, doll, how are ya?' Somewhere, someone said he was working on a new play. Somehow, I asked him how it was going. 'I have no idea,' he sighed...
"When Fifth of July was published, I asked him to sign my copy. Like any actor, I hoped for some glowing words regarding my definitive characterization. Instead, Lanford wrote: 'Make it all count.' And then he signed his name.
"That’s what he did his whole life. He made it all count and then he signed his name."
TANYA BEREZIN (co-founder with Wilson of Circle Rep, she appeared in many of his plays): "I remember the garden he designed for me. He did the bones, I did the plants. We fancied ourselves Vita and Harold. I remember every Christmas since 1967. I remember speaking his words. I remember the glorious challenge of his standards."
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